Earlier this year in May, professors Toa Tawa and Gavin Feller led a study-abroad trip to New Zealand where students were exposed to a thrilling whitewater experience on Kaituna River among many other activities.
The river, running through the Rotorua region, has sections of class IV and V rapids including Tutea Falls, the world’s tallest commercially rafted waterfall.
The falls drop 7 meters or about 22 feet. On average, 1-in-20 rafts will flip at the bottom of the falls but calm water immediately follows, allowing rafts to be uprighted and safely manned before the next rapid.
The SUU group’s first raft made it through, however the second raft popped straight out of the water upon reaching the bottom and capsized.
“Honestly I’m pretty sure I blacked out. I remember going over the very top of it and I don’t remember anything after that until I was up underneath the raft,” said Kymberlin Johnson, a sophomore English major.
Johnson was among several in the group that had never rafted before. She said she would consider doing it again if there were no waterfalls.
Tawa, an assistant professor of English, acted as tour director for the trip to his native country which he has done five or six times. Tawa added rafting to the itinerary after a occasion hiking to the falls and seeing the excitement of rafts going down.
Unlike Johnson, Tawa had a vivid recollection of what it was like flipping in the raft and being under the water.
“What I remember seeing was kind of like an impressionist painting, just swirling around like a Van Gogh painting. Your vision isn’t quite focused on any one thing, but lots of things are happening. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh! We just flipped.”
The surge of the water pushed pushed Tawa up and out. Drifting toward Johnson, who appeared to be gripping to the side of the bank as if her nails were dug into it, Tawa grabbed her and they both hopped back into the raft
“I saw everyone scrambling to either get out from underneath or back on top of the raft,” said Alex Schilling, a fellow first-time rafter.
Schilling, a senior communication major, would absolutely raft the Kaituna again, despite being a witness to his peers being dumped out of their raft through the falls.
“At one point we were able to go down some rapids without having to be in the raft. That was one of the funnest parts of the trip. We were completely free falling through the water, spinning over and around, nothing stopping you. It was a blast.”
Though SUU study-abroad trips may offer the unique experience of international whitewater rafting, there are ample opportunities to get on the river closer to home.
SUU Outdoors will guide a whitewater rafting trip down Cataract Canyon during fall break. The stretch of the Colorado River near Moab is rated among the best and also most dangerous whitewater in Utah.
Story by: Reyce Knutson and Kurt Meacham
Photos Courtesy of: Yuri Bertacchi, Toa Tawa and Rotorua Rafting